The Electoral Roll

We have a voters roll in Zimbabwe. It has about 6 million names and addresses on it and runs to many thousands of pages. In one stack it stands as high as the ceiling. It is about as useful to our fledgling democracy as waste paper - worse, it is a serious impediment to real democracy in this part of the world. I have held that view for some time - often at variance with the views of others in the MDC and I want to explain why. The theory behind a voters roll is that this enables a given country to control who has the right to vote and where. However, the very existence of such a roll opens the door to all sorts of negative aspects and possibilities. You can deny the vote to those you want to exclude and you can foster the participation of certain groups at the same time. But it is not these aspects that bother me even though they have been used here to subvert democracy and activities are taking place right now, which, if allowed to stand will prejudice the outcome of any future election in 2005. My main concern lies in simply in the task of maintaining such a complex register of names and addresses in a developing country where the majority has no recognizable address. When a person dies in a developed country, a strict procedure is followed and this fairly quickly feeds through to a central registry where their names can be taken off the roll.

In this country that happens in a minority of cases and even then it might take the personal intervention of a relative to remove the name from the roll. In most cases the person dies and is buried and because of the cost and difficulty of following procedures, matters are left at that point with little or no follow up. So when the voters roll was examined in the late 90' s by a consultant firm in Harare, funded by the Norwegian Government, they discovered hundreds of thousands of people on the roll were in fact dead.

If we follow a simple calculation you can see the size of this problem in respect to the existing roll in Zimbabwe. Our national population is about 11 million at present. At least 53 per cent are below the age when they can vote (18 years) and that leaves about 5 million people who could possibly be on the roll. Say that a very good record would be about 85 per cent (and I do not for one minute think we can get there) then we have a maximum potential voters roll of 4,4 million. Our roll has 6 million names on it. Then take the fact that we have about 3 to 4 million people living abroad as economic and political refugees - they are leaving the country at the rate of about 1500 a day - all adults of voting age. No record exists of their departure and if they are registered voters, then they become "ghost voters" . This makes the likely numbers of "real voters" on the present roll no more than at most 3 million or half the number on the roll. In an election it is unlikely that more than about two thirds will turn out to vote so the potential tally in an election here is likely to be less than 2 million voters. In the presidential election 2,9 million people "cast" their vote - perhaps as many as nearly a million were simply not there.

Then there are the problems of having a migrant labor economy. Most workers have their homes in their rural constituency and work hundreds of kilometers away in a city or on a mine. To vote they must go home and the cost today is almost prohibitive. In South Africa, they talk of there being nearly 3 million Zimbabwe migrants. How do they vote? They simply cannot if a voter's roll is used, as voters must cast their ballots in the constituency in which they are registered or vote by postal ballot

So a voter's roll undermines the basic premise of a democratic system - the right of all who live permanently in a country to vote for those who govern them. A system that, ideally, is inclusive rather than exclusive.

So for my money, I support a system, which would allow any Zimbabwean with current citizenship status or residency, to vote, on a national basis in support of a specified political Party, which would have put up a policy basis for its campaign and a list of approved candidates - to be elected by proportional representation.

This would allow all Zimbabweans to vote - both outside the country at Embassies or by postal ballots and would allow Zimbabweans to vote close to home and work. The massive structure set up to fabricate a voters roll could be dismantled and set to work to tidy up births and deaths and citizenship rights and registration - its much more important that we each have a valid ID which specifies our rights.

For Zimbabwe to adhere to the SADC norms for elections, the 30 appointed seats that are currently controlled by the state President would have to go. This means 150 seats on the common roll. If we were operating a proportional representation system then there would be no difficulty in arranging this. All political parties have had difficulty with securing sufficient numbers of women as candidates and then getting them elected, a proportional representation system would achieve such a balance at the stroke of a pen.

But perhaps just as important, such a system would undermine the tendency in Africa to swing from one extreme to another. A first past the post system carries with it the threat of extreme dominance by one party of any system. In a free and fair election in Zimbabwe (and we are miles away from such a goal) the very real danger is that Zanu PF would be either wiped out or rendered so tiny a force in Parliament that they could not influence events or make up a significant opposition. Under a proportional representation system this is unlikely to happen.

We are now just 18 weeks away from the next election. The government has done little to meet the demand by the MDC that it fulfill its obligations under the SADC protocols signed in August. In fact it has done just the opposite - The NGO Bill is in Parliament, the Electoral Act is also in discussion in Parliament and is a deeply flawed piece of legislation. There is no sign of any relaxation of media controls or propaganda by the State controlled media. There has also been no let up in terms of the on going effort to crush the MDC structures wherever they can be identified.

To meet the deadline we would have to have access to the media and a return of the Daily News at least 3 to 4 months in advance of any elections. AIPA and POSA would both have to be repealed and the present restrictions on voter education and the training and deployment of polling agents would have to be completely lifted. There is now no time to prepare a new voters roll and the present one is simply so crocked that it must be scrapped. If we are to eliminate the 30 appointed seats and accommodate the one-third women lawmakers rule then we need to negotiate and adopt constitutional reforms designed to achieve all of this - at least 3 months before any planned election.

If these things are not achieved then elections are simply out of the question. Mbeki knows this and so does Mugabe - it is difficult to see how this agenda can be moved at all without substantial pressure on the latter by the former.

Eddie CrossBulawayo,
10th November 2004